Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review of Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment

Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment is a very good overview of the haskallah movement. It is the only good historical survey that coveres the whole period from about 1780-1800. It covers all the major players, literature, and crises in the movement.

The historiography of the Jewish Enlightenment usually focuses on Moses Mendelssohn and his circle of students. Feiner's discussion is much more nuanced, and comprehensive. The book makes a few things clear: The haskallah seems to have been motivated by a few things including equal rights for Jews, a feeling of intellectual inferiority by Jews, the need for scientific knowledge and culture, and a need to break Jews away from the authority of the rabbinical elite. The rabbinical elite were suspect for many things, but their anti-enlightenment attitude was especially problematic. Their stance on the early burial issue seems to have been particularly annoying to the maskillim.

The book argues a few very interesting pionts: Mendelssohn didn't really have students. He had a circle of people who revolved around him, went to his home and took part in discussion with him and his salon. Also, there is no clear way to deliniate when the enlightenment was actually taking place. Feiner uses the publication of Ha'me'asef, their main literary journal as to dilineate the endpoints of the haskallah.

The book tells the story of all the important battles the haskallh fought, including the ones with Wessely, the ones over the schools, the fight over the Bi'ur, the Posner affair, Mendelssohn's battle with the Priest, the Kohn problems. . . . Part III of the book tries to show what the haskallah movement was and how they organized, and what their institutional structures were. Part IV then chronicles their ultimate demise. Mendlessohn dies, their reaison d'etra is less clear. Their are battling both the "ignorant rabbis" and also the secularized Jews. The movement ultimately looses momentum and cannot attract interest.

The book is a good read and I learned quite a bit about the history of the haskallah.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Blogging from Belfast

Belfast is a funny place. I am not sure how, but it is definitely different. I do not yet comprehend anything verbal, nor do the natives seem to comprehend me. (Must be that thick Brooklyn accent of mine). They also drive on the wrong side of the street, and I am constantly looking the wrong way when crossing. I hope I don't get hit. It is pretty frightening. The people do not seem to be the friendliest, except when they are going to, in, or coming from a pub, which is like. . . always. It is a plesant little place, though I am stuck at an academic conference where I get to sit through lots of talks about things I am not sure I comprehend. I got served a breakfast here, where I could not identify the spherical things in the buscits, and there were three differnt toast-like foods that came with my eggs. It was good though. I will describe more later on, when I actually do something here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is a planet?

We all live on a planet, and most of us can name most of the other planets in our solar system. But what is a planet? This is in some sense a real philosophical question. That is, it is a question that does not depend on the scientific facts of the matter, but rather on a set of definitions, and a "conceptual analysis" of what planet is. Again, it is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one.

It is good to see philosophy of science making the news, and it is good to see that astronomers are managing this question just fine without philosophers of science, and have a tentative definition, albeit not without its own troubles. This should be fun to watch.

As far as I know, there is little literature on the philosophy of astronomy, and hopefully this will change things.

The debate hinges on the following points: There are thousands of things orbiting our sun. They are of various sizes. They are of varied distances from the sun, and they have different types of orbits. They have different shapes too. They are effected by different celestial forces.

It will be important to doa few things. First, the number of planets, whatever it amounts to, is kept small. It would be too much of a mess to call everything a planet, and it would seem to miss the point. Second, everything we end up calling a planet has to have certain features in common. If not, we cannot have a real definition. Third, the traditional planets should be retained as planets. We do not want Earth to suddenly not be a planet because of our new definition.

Some earlier proposed definitions had eight planets, and excluded Pluto. And here is where politics infringes on science. Standard earlier definitions exclude Pluto as a planet . But Pluto is the only planet (of the three that have been discovered) that were discoverred by an American. Americans have a lot of say in science. American scientists, and Americans in general will want to make sure that there is at least one planet that is forever associated with American science. So we can be assured that as long as the US is a superpower, Pluto will be a planet.

Again, ultimately this is a philosophical question, one that nothing serious hinges on it. Some debates in science are much more significant, and the outcomes do make a difference, Some debates in the philosophy of science are serious and make a difference in setting a scientific framework, like the debate between cladists and pheneticists in biology.

We will likely realize in the long run that no two celestial bodies have that much in common, and we will use extensional definitions of planets instead of intensional definitions. We will just call a planet anything that we have been calling planet, and anything that the term planet catches on for, instead of trying to come up with a clear definition of what a planet is. If philosophy of sience has taught us anything, it is that a definition that includes all the cases we want, and excludes all the cases we don't want is never forthcoming. Nature is just not that clean.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

BBC thinks it is "too white"

I'm taking bets: although the BBC suddenly feels it needs to have a more diverse reporting staff, one that understands the culture from which it is reporting, there will never be a Hebrew speaking Jew reporting from Israel for them.

Then again, it was once a British colony. Perhaps they feel that they are already all experts.

Added 8/13/06: What I don't get is why the left (the BBC in this case) sees everything only in terms of race. After all, you'd think that perhaps having someone who grew up rich report on inner city crime would miss the point just as much. Rich people are certainly asking the wrong questions there. Then there is language. Lord knows that someone who doesn't speak French reporting on France, in france, is really missing a lot.

And religion is also pretty relevant. Having interracted with many people who are not Jewish, I am certain that they generally don't get it. They miss the point, make the wrong assumptions, and are fairly insensitive to Jewish concerns. There is an assumption of this "Judeo-Christian" affinity, that is a misnomer. "Judeo-Christian" refers to the fact that two religions sort of share one book in their respective religious corpra. It does not mean that the religions have anything in common.

People (like the British) see Jews, and they see white people like themselves. The BBC then makes a rather racist assumption that racial affinity is good enough to allow for mutual cultural understanding. I'm white, the're white. Thus we are all the same. Bad argument. Real differences are not skin deep. They are linguistic, ideological, social, cultural, and poilitical. The BBC is making the wrong kind of assumption. It is racist. They are racist.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

New War

It is clear that whatever is going on in Lebanon is going to face the US in the coming years. The US Army, if it will successfully fight this has very few options. Here is one of them.

Everyone is talking about the new version of war, often called 4GW, that is currently being fought in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and countless other places. For some reason William Gibson blames the neocons for not keeping up with the Kuhnian paradigm shift in war. (As if this problem cropped up in the last 6 years, and terrorism was not a problem with the PLO going back to 1966.) Some even blame the current conflict in Lebanon on Israel's frustration with this kind of new war.

The problem is that the people in charge have not fought in a modern war recently enough, and are so old that they think cell phones are still pretty nifty devices. Of course this is always the paradox of armies - you have to have been there a long time to be in charge, and age is a liability of being in charge. Young insurgents adapt much faster than old established armies. The US is trying, it is modifying tactics and training somewhat, but it is not thinking big enough.

For the new soldier and the new kinds of armies that are being fought NODs, sophisticated reliable recordless encrypted communications devices, vertical (anti-heierarchial) command and control systems, sophisticated psy-ops and propoganda dissemination, virtual civilian support anonymity, enemy cultural penetration, and a host of modern technology-driven weapons and tactics are at their disposal.

Weapons are also generally cheap and readily available. So are soliders. New fighters are often ideology driven so they are not overly concerned about their own lives, or they are bought and paid for so cheaply that their death is not much of a liability to their greater cause.

Moreover the ROE are . . . well, there really are not ROE. No safety, no protecting your own soldiers, no protecting, the enemy's human rights, or civilians. Someone changed the rules.

In the case of Hezbollah, they are using all of Lebanon as human shields and still getting Lebanese sympathy. (So is Hamas and whoever is being fought in Iraq. . .) The only rules of war now seem to be that if you are part of a nation-state you have to be careful about who you hit, even in wars where there is no distinction between fighter and civilian.

The inability of modern states to fight a modern war is a function of the assymetrical warfare that modern nations are forced to fight against terrorist networks and proxy armies. The 21st century has to see either the world change in to a place full of only nation states, which is not too likely, or warfare has to change. Modern armies have to learn to fight wars that will be much dirtier than the ones we currently fight.

There is little hope of learning to fight an army like Hezbollah's on Western terms. There is little hope of killing off Hezbollah, or armies like it, like those in Gaza, the Sudan, Iraq, or all over Latin America for that matter. What the US and Israel, and franky all nation-states, i.e., the countries that currently fight conventional wars by Geneva Convention rules, is to create proxy armies of their own. The function of proxy armies is to make the price of terrorism to whoever supports it.

There currently is no price for terror. Afghanistan paid a small price in exchange for sponsoring 9/11. But did they really? The taliban undoubtedly sees their loss of power as a minor setback, like when the communists temporary held on to Afghanistan. The communists are gone, and the Americans will be gone too. If you have the historical patience of a Muslim, these sort of things like loosing your country don't bother you.

But not all states are configured alike. Israel spends an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money making sure that right-wing radical groups in Israel don't attack Arab targets. This is a reasonable thing to do given that Israel wants to have a monopoly of force inside its borders. This keeps Israel a nation-state. The Taliban is more like a polis, in the sense that it does not need to hold on to a particular geography. It will thrive elsewhere until the time comes where they will regain power.

What Israel, the US and Western countries in general need to do is to get out of the nation-state mindset. They need to train a proxy army which has enough autonomy that it is disavowable, that allows for plausible deniability. Armies like this will be the ones operating completely outside the control of the state, and merely receive funding, intelligence and a blind-eye from the host-nation, if there even is any. The West needs an army that can go around causing untold damage, while their leaders get on TV swearing up and down that they are trying to curtail these groups and calling for endless UN meetings on how to curtail them.

The US occasionally does this I assume, but never to fight a war that we take too seriously - I suppose these tiny wars in these tiny countries like Nicaragua.

I can't remember the last time I heard that an Iraqi group, the Taliban, Hamas, or Hezbollah actually attacked a military target. The Taliban are targeting markets, the Sunni and Shi'i in Iraq are targeting mosques, Hamas is targeting whover it can, and Hezbollah are throwing rockets in to the middle of cities. Being in the infantry seem to be one of the safer jobs these days. It is much more dangerous to be a civilian. A group like this is not fought on traditional terms.

Someone has to take a new look at war. Movies often portray groups like this as rogue groups fighting tiny battles on behalf of countries. The US, Israel, Russia, and other Western powers need to have non-tiny armies for such jobs. These aremies need not to be rogues, but completely detached from the standard US command structure.

Modern armies have to target (1) Popular support (2) high-profile enemy command personnel (3) funding (4) anti-Western values.

Modern "soldiers" need need access to serious linguistic training, so they can fight properly in enemy territory. Make the DLAB as mandatory as the ASVAB. Identify potential linguistically adept soldiers.

Modern soldiers need training not in traditional combat, nor urban combat, but in terrorist tactics. There needs to be a new ethos that characterized non-traditional warfare. They need to know how to improvise and obtain and use weapons in foreign situations. They need to be able to have a large measure of autonomy to work without guidance from above. They need to be able to maintain radio silence for weeks and still inflict serious damage to the enemy. They need the protections of a nation state, but not as much accountability. It is difficult for an army such as the US's to trust such groups, as the training is all geared toward heierarchal command and control from the president on down to the privates in the field. We need somewhat autonomous armies that do not need integration in the US military structure.

We need to make the destruction of enemy assets a priority. Enemy assets include all collateral and secondary services that the enemy provides, be it drug ventures for funding, hospitals for public support, or schools for indoctrination.

Another priority hast to be the beginning of a sophisticated PR machine. Undoubtedly psy-ops and our Army journalists are trained to tell good stories and take good pictures, but apparently showing certain kinds of pictures tells better stories than other kinds of pictures. We need to start showing the right kinds of pictures and telling the right kinds of stories. Now we are not. We need someone who knows how to manufacture the right pictures at the right time for the right audience.

We need to outsource Basic Combat Training. Start shipping soldiers away from fort Jackson, and Fors Leonard Wood, and move them to a FOB in Bagdad. They need to train with the type of peopele they will be fighting, eating the food they will be eating, and seeing the same scenery that they will be fighting in. The US Army never has the home advantage in a fight. It is always on unfamiliar turf, with unfamiliar weather, street signs, and intel.

The US needs to also recruit foreign local forces in to its traditional and nontraditional army. The Army would benefit from the local know-how that now comes only at great expence, and it hardly trickles down well.

No one in Hezbollah will ever be charged with war crimes. There will always be plenty of Israelis brought up on charges. Americans too will be fodder for this. Western powers also need armies that are immune from war-crimes prosecution. They need armies that do not have an officer corps and an enlisted core. There needs to be a much looser planning structure with more flexibility and deniability.

Of course this is all illegal vis a vis international law. But international law breaks down when there are some groups which have immunity from them, and anyway there is no enforcement of law. International law is a gentleman's agreement, but with only about half the people on the planet being gentleman. Moreover, a government's job is not to protect international law, but to defend its citizens.

Until all this happens, Western powers are figthting a lopsided war that they will never win. The best they will ever be able to do is to keep winning battles but ultimately it will cost them the war.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Review of Garrison's Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece

Daniel H. Garrison's Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece is an interesting discussion of various aspects of Ancient Greek sexual culture.

Much of the discussion revolves around sexual religious practice, sexual reference and innendo in poular media, like the plays and the written culture and art.

The transition to a more sexualized culture, and the various forms it took is well discussed. There are good discussion of homosexuality and the role it played in ancient Greek culture, and in the role it played in the patriarchial nature of the society. He also has interesting things to say about pederasty and the roles it played in initiating young males in to the Greek political and social culture. There is also a good discussion of the transition around the time of the rise of Christianity of a move away from a sexual culture, to a desexualized culture in Greece.

There is also some good stuff on the nude as an art form, and the role women played in the erotic structure.

The book has plenty of interesting pictures of pottery, sculptures and other ancient kncknacks that are very germane. If this sort of stuff is up your alley, this was not a bad book.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Rolling Stone with its . . . in its mouth (not foot)

This story from last month's Rolling Stone could not have gotten Sgt Wilkerson right. When referring to a vehicle, one might say that it is "Locked, cocked, and ready to rock." Meaning that it is all ready to go, as in when one locks the magazine in the weapon, cocks the weapon (puts a round in the chamber) and is all ready to go shoot something.

Here is a quote from the article:

"Back in Baghdad, they'd thrown me in the back of the third of four Humvees in the convoy, a truck code-named Juliet.

"Juliet is like cock and ready to rock," said Sgt. Stephen Wilkerson as we roared out of the motor pool in Camp Victory to the exit of the base, headed on a six-day journey across northern Iraq, the first stage of my five-week stay in the war zone."

Rolling stone sent a reporter (Matt Taibbi) to Baghdad so unversed in basic military lingo, it is as if he never even watched a war movie. I bet he thinks that Jimi Hendrix asked us to excuse him while he kissed this guy.

Then again, maybe he did say it. But I'd bet against it.

Don't they have a fact checker? And so far, no one has caught this.